California's English learners: Can you say 'held back’?
Los Angeles Times
March 21, 2006
By Kelly Torrance
THE LATEST TEST scores of California's English learners show that immigrant
children are continuing to do well under English immersion, defying the doomsday
predictions by opponents of 1998's Proposition 227. The mandate that schools
teach children "overwhelmingly" in English, rather than in their native
languages, has resulted in a large, demonstrable improvement in English
Last year, more than 1.3 million English learners took the California English
Language Development Test. For kindergarteners and first-graders, the exam
assesses listening and speaking skills. For second through 12th grades, it also
measures reading and writing skills.
In 2005, 47% of California's English learners scored in the top two categories
of English proficiency ? "early advanced" or "advanced." By comparison, only 25%
scored in the top two categories in 2001, shortly after many school districts
began eliminating their bilingual programs. That's a remarkable improvement.
Although many California school districts, including many that were previously
resistant to immersion, continue to see improvement, the system has failed to
keep pace in the important and often-overlooked area of "reclassification."
Proposition 227 called for structured English-immersion programs, followed by a
temporary transition period to mainstream instruction "not normally intended to
exceed one year."
But California schools are failing to transition English learners to English
classes within the required 12 months.
As long as they don't score below "intermediate" on any one section, students
with an overall language test score of "early advanced" or "advanced" are
considered by the state to be proficient in English. But although almost half of
California's English learners scored in these top two categories in the last two
years, fewer than one in 10 were reclassified as English-proficient.
In other words, even though these students speak English, many are still being
kept out of English-speaking classrooms. Between 2001 and 2005, as proficiency
was increasing from 25% to 47%, reclassification inched forward from 7.8% to 9%.
California's lack of good data contributes to the trouble. The state provides
only an annual snapshot of its English learners, so it is unclear how many years
individual students are trapped in immersion or bilingual programs. Schools also
receive additional funds for each student classified as an English learner,
giving them an incentive to keep kids out of regular classrooms.
The state Board of Education recognizes the problem."We clearly need to look at
why this gap is occurring and determine how to address it," said Jack O'Connell,
the state superintendent of public instruction. He is now urging districts to
review their reclassification procedures, which is a step in the right
direction. But he hasn't offered any specific guidelines.
Finding better educational solutions for this large and growing segment of the
population will be critical - not just for their future but for California's
economic future. Students classified as English learners usually do not have
access to more challenging curriculums that can better prepare them for college
and beyond, such as advanced placement courses that could give them college
The good news is that once immigrant students learn English and attend
mainstream classes, they often do very well. Some school districts recognize
this and are way ahead of the game. Long Beach Unified, for example, has a
reclassification rate of 18%, twice the state average. Others, sadly, are
lagging far behind. San Bernardino City Unified and San Juan Unified had
reclassification rates of 5.5% and 5.3%, respectively.
"I was just at a high school this morning where students who were reclassified
outscored everyone on that campus by far, in English and math," said Elizabeth
Hartung-Cole, Long Beach's Eng lish language development curriculum leader for
sixth through 12th grades. "Those are kids who obviously worked hard and had to
be disciplined to learn a second language."